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Is Penn State's Non-Conference Football Schedule Good Enough?

by on February 22, 2018 8:15 PM

Is there "enough" in Penn State football's future regular-season non-conference schedules?

As in, are there enough quality opponents to get the Nittany Lions to the College Football Playoffs even if they lose a game along the way?

Well, there's Auburn and Virginia Tech and West Virginia. And Pitt, twice.

(For comparison's sake, Michigan's future non-conference foes include Texas, Washington, UCLA, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. And Ohio State has future games with Notre Dame, Oregon, TCU, Texas and Washington.)


Are Penn State's non-con dates easy enough to get PSU to the CFP with a 3-0 non-con slate that might offset a stumble — or two — in Big Ten play?

Answer: Ball State (2-10 in 2017), Ball State (4-8 in 2016), Ball State (3-9 in 2015). 


Is Penn State's overall home slate attractive enough that the Beaver Stadium faithful's faithfulness and their propensity to go #107k won't be tested by a September line-up of Idaho spuds and western duds?

Coming soon to a stadium near you: Idaho, 19-41 over the past five years; San Jose State and Nevada, a combined 5-21 last season; and Kent State, with a grand total of 14 victories since 2013.

Call it the Sandy Clause, that triple-headed decision tree PSU athletic director Sandy Barbour has to navigate as the CEO of the $144 million athletics arm of Penn State. It's a good-to-have conundrum she didn't have to face as AD at either Tulane or Cal, but it still ain't easy:

Fill the non-con card with a quality foe or two who can counterbalance a loss in the Big Ten; heed to James Franklin's apparent wishes and don't make the run-up to the toughest division in college football too tough; and/or make the match-ups appealing to ticket buyers. 

And oh, while you're at it, schedule Pitt every year. At home (since Penn State makes millions more for a home non-con than it is for one that is on the road).


Barbour goes about making up the schedule with varying degrees of support and input from Franklin, athletics COO Phil Esten and athletics finance guru Rick Kaluza. Their task changed considerably with the 2016 season, when the Big Ten went from eight conference games to nine, meaning teams had four Big Ten home games one year and five the next. That dipped into the inventory of open dates for big-money home games. It also meant that the home-and-home series that bigger non-con name opponents demand were tougher to fulfill.

Here's how Penn State has handled that challenge to date. This is PSU's non-conference schedule through 2025; all games are at home, unless noted:

2018 — Appalachian State, Kent State and at Pitt

2019 — Idaho, Buffalo, Pitt

2020 — Nevada, San Jose State and at Virginia Tech

2021 — Ball State, Auburn, one opponent to be announced

2022 — at Auburn; two opponents tba

2023 — West Virginia; two opponents tba

2024 — Bowling Green, at West Virginia; one opponent tba

2025 — Virginia Tech; two opponents tba

For context, let's see how Penn State has done in non-conference games since joining the Big Ten. And then we'll see how the Nittany Lions' Big Ten brethren, plus a few other schools that are of special to Penn State fans, have set up their future non-conference schedules.

While we're at it, let's note that the non-conference games we're talking about here are regular-season contests, and not bowl games. Bowl games are an entirely different matter; since they're merit-based, you expect its brand of non-conference competition to be tougher.


Penn State started Big Ten Conference play in 1993 and in the 25 years since then the Nittany Lions have played 88 non-conference games, the preponderance of them at home in Beaver Stadium. Makes sense, and dollars too, since that's where the payday — in the box office and on the field — is almost always bigger.

Here's a breakdown of that quarter century of Penn State's non-conference games:

WIN/LOSS: 72-16. From 1993-99, Penn State was 22-0 in non-conference games. From 2000-04, Penn State was 10-8 in non-con games. Since its 24-14 season-opening loss to Ohio University in 2012, Penn State is 15-0 in non-con games in Beaver Stadium.

HOME: 62 wins, 6 losses (.912). The six defeats: Toledo, 24-6 (2000); Miami, Fla., 33-7 (2001); Boston College, 27-14 (2003); Alabama, 27-11 (2011); Ohio University, 24-14 (2012); and Central Florida, 34-31 (2013).

AWAY: 5 wins, 9 losses (.454). 2-9 since 2000. Victories came at Maryland (1993), Temple (1994), Louisville (1994), Syracuse (2008) and Temple (2011). Losses came at Pitt (2000, 2016), Virginia (2001, 2012), Nebraska (2003), Boston College (2004), Notre Dame (2006), Alabama (2010) and Temple (2015).

NEUTRAL FIELD: 5 wins, 1 loss (.833). Wins were against Rutgers, Giants Stadium, N.J. (1995); USC, Giants Stadium, N.J. (1996); Temple, Giants Stadium, N.J. (1996); Syracuse, MetLife Stadium, N.J. (2013); and Central Florida, Dublin, Ireland (2014). The sole loss was against USC in 1996 in Giants Stadium, N.J.

VS. RANKED TEAMS: 5-6 (.454). Victories came against No. 14 USC (1994, home), No. 7 USC (1996, Giants Stadium, N.J.), No. 21 Southern Miss (1998, home), No. 4 Arizona (1999, home) and No. 8 Nebraska (2003, home). Losses were against No. 15 USC (2000, Giants Stadium, N.J.), No. 2 Miami, Fla. (2001, home), No. 18 Nebraska (2003, away), No. 4 Notre Dame (2006, away), No. 1 Alabama (2010, away) and No. 3 Alabama (2011, home).

BY HEAD COACH: Joe Paterno, 1993-2011, 56-11 (.836); Bill O'Brien, 2012-13, 5-3 (.625); James Franklin, 2014-2017, 12-2 (.857). Franklin's two non-con losses at Penn State have both come on the road — against Temple in 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field, and against Pitt in 2016 at Heinz Field. Franklin was 11-2 at Vanderbilt against non-SEC teams, for a career non-con record of 23-3 (.885).


Want to judge Penn State by the non-conference company its Big Ten and regional opponents keep?

Here's a roundup of some interesting — i.e., brand-name and/or higher-end opposition — non-conference games other teams in the Big Ten Conference have scheduled from 2018-2030, from We threw in some regional schools for comparison, as well as recent CFP championship game participants Alabama, Clemson and Georgia.

In 2018, the Big Ten will feature two marquee neutral site non-conference games. Maryland and Texas face off in Landover, Md., on Sept. 1, and Ohio State plays TCU in Jerry's World in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 15. Also on Sept. 15, Illinois hosts South Florida in Soldier Field in Chicago.

In 2020-21, Wisconsin has a home-and-home series with Notre Dame. the first year the game is in Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. The second year it's in Soldier Field.

Say what you want to say about them, but it certainly doesn't look like Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin are shying away from playing big-name non-conference opponents. And you have to admire college football's Tinder, Virginia Tech, which has seemingly swiped right on half of the Big Ten — five teams, to be exact, which takes a bit of the luster off of its two-game series with Penn State.


Illinois — Duke (2 times), Missouri (4), South Florida, Virginia (2)

Indiana — Cincinnati (2), Louisville (3), Virginia

Iowa — Iowa State (6)

Maryland — Texas, West Virginia (2), Virginia (2), Virginia Tech (4)

Michigan — Notre Dame (2), Oklahoma (2), Texas (2), UCLA (2), Washington (2), Virginia Tech (2)

Michigan State — Arizona State (2), Boise State (2), BYU, Miami, Fla. (2), Notre Dame (2)

Minnesota — BYU (2), Colorado (2), Mississippi State (2, 2026-27)

Nebraska — Arizona (2), Cincinnati (2), Colorado (4), Oklahoma, North Dakota, Tennessee (2)

Northwestern — Colorado (2), Duke (4), Notre Dame, Stanford

Ohio State — Cincinnati, Notre Dame (2), Oregon (2), TCU, Texas (2), Washington (2)

Purdue — Missouri, Notre Dame, TCU, Virginia Tech

Rutgers — Kansas State (2), Virginia Tech (4)

Wisconsin — BYU, Notre Dame (2), South Florida, Washington State (2), Virginia Tech


Alabama — Duke (Atlanta), Louisville (Orlando), Miami, Fla. (Atlanta)

Bowling Green — Arizona State, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State, Tennessee, UCLA

Clemson — Texas A&M (2), Notre Dame (6), South Carolina (every year)

Georgia — Georgia Tech (every year), Notre Dame, UCLA (2), Virginia

Mississippi State — Arizona (2), Kansas State (2), Minnesota 92)

Pitt — Cincinnati (2), Notre Dame (4), Penn State (2), Tennessee (2), West Virginia (2)

Temple — Duke (2), Georgia Tech, Miami, Fla. (2), Oklahoma (3)

Virginia Tech — Arizona (2), BYU (2), Notre Dame (5), Penn State (2), Purdue, Wisconsin (2)

West Virginia —N.C. State, Penn State (2), Tennessee (Charlotte), Virginia Tech (2)


Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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